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Choral and Vocal
SOMBER GERMAN POETRY IN SONG AT ROSCHMANN RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Two weeks does make a hefty difference. Feb. 3 saw the diva Renée Fleming beguile a full Weill Hall house in a mix of Brahms, Broadway show songs and Dvorak chestnuts. It was a gala event with couture gowns and colorful extra-musical communication between singer and her rapt audience. Dorothea Rösc...
Chamber
NOVEL AND FAMILIAR WORKS FROM THE TILDEN TRIO
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 11, 2018
North Coast chamber music fans have the luxury of two fine resident piano trios, with the frequently performing Trio Navarro at Sonoma State, and the Tilden Trio at San Rafael’s Dominican University. The Tilden plays less often, but their Feb. 11 performance brought several hundred to Angelico Hall ...
Symphony
A FIFTH CONTENDER ENTERS THE RING FOR THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Saturday, February 10, 2018
In these international times, what makes a piece of music American? For Michael Christie, the answer is that it needs to have at least premiered on these shores, if not been composed here. Thus the rationale for the “all American” program that Christie--the fifth and final conducting candidate for t...
Recital
HAUNTING RACHMANINOFF WORKS IN HU'S MAO RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, February 08, 2018
Ching-Yun Hu made a return Music at Oakmont appearance Feb. 8 in Berger Auditorium, reprising a recital she made in the same hall four years ago. Many of the recital’s trappings were the same, but the music Ms. Hu chose to play was decidedly different. All afternoon the pianist was in an aggressiv...
Chamber
A COMPLETE ARTISTIC PACKAGE IN FLEMING'S WEILL HALL RECITAL
by Vaida Falconbridge and Mary Beard
Saturday, February 03, 2018
The diva Renée Fleming strode on the Weill Hall stage Feb. 2 in her first couture gown of the evening, a gray and swirling cream strapless sheath with flamboyant coordinating stole. For this concert, Ms. Fleming stayed to somewhat lighter fare, foregoing heavier dramatic and coloratura arias for a v...
Recital
ZNAIDER-KULEK DUO CHARMS AND CHALLANGES WEILL AUDIENCE FEB. 2
by Terry McNeill
Friday, February 02, 2018
Weill hall has mounted several exceptional piano recitals, with Garrick Ohlsson’s titanic Liszt concert, and of course Lang Lang’s two insouciant but also compelling performances topping the list since 2013. But arguably the virtuoso violinists have on balance been more impressive, and thoughts g...
Chamber
VIVID GERMAN ROMANTICISM IN VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT IN SCHROEDER
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, January 27, 2018
Though not new to Sonoma County, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival (VOM) concerts are relatively recent in the Green Music Center’s Schroeder Hall. So the first of three spring concerts Jan. 27 provided a picture of what’s in the repertoire leading up to their Festival this summer at Sonoma’s Ha...
Symphony
MONUMENTAL NIELSEN SYMPHONY CAPS SO CO PHIL CONCERT AT SR HS
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, January 27, 2018
Turning again away from conventional repertoire, the Sonoma County Philharmonic programmed Jan. 27 three works in what were local debut performances in Santa Rosa High School’s Performing Arts Center. Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, Op. 29, called “Inextinguishable,” closed the program with an extravaga...
Chamber
ECLECTIC ANDERSON & ROE TRANSCRIPTIONS CAPTIVATE WEILL HALL AUDIENCE
by Nicki Bell
Sunday, January 21, 2018
From the first moment when Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe walked Jan. 21 on the Weill Hall stage and spoke to the audience about their two-piano program, it was clear that an afternoon of drama, humor, virtuosity, warmth, transcendence and excitement was in store. This dynamic and mesmerizing ...
Chamber
BALCOM TRIO HIGHLIGHTS DELPHI'S RAC CONCERT IN OCCIDENTAL
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, January 20, 2018
The Redwood Arts Council audience first met the Delphi Trio (Jeffrey LaDeur, (piano), Liana Berube (violin), and cellist Michelle Kwon) in 2013, and subsequent concerts in the same Occidental hall have become crowd favorites. The January 20th program before a capacity audience seemed to have enthus...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Redwood Arts Council / Saturday, March 01, 2008
Jupiter String Quartet

HEAVENLY SERENITY IN OCCIDENTAL

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 01, 2008

The March 1 concert by the Jupiter String Quartet and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester at the Occidental Community Church drew a remarkable crowd--not in terms of numbers (the concerts there are often sold out), but rather in terms of age. After squeezing into one of the few remaining pew seats, I looked around and beheld crowds of young faces, perhaps a third of the audience. This was not your usual chamber music crowd; nor is the Jupiter String Quartet your usual chamber music ensemble.

The Jupiter was, in a word, spectacular. Composed of four youthful musicians, the quartet is every bit as good as more venerable ensembles, bringing to mind the glory days of the Juilliard Quartet under Robert Mann. They play with the same level of energy and insight that Mann brought to the Juilliard, and their careers have just begun.

The composition of the Jupiter shows how much chamber music has changed since the Juilliard first rose to prominence a half century ago. Instead of four unrelated white men in suits and ties, the quartet is half female (on the middle instruments), with an Asian American (Nelson Lee) playing first violin and the husband (Daniel McDonough) of the second violin playing cello. But wait, there's more: the two women are sisters, with Megan Freivogel on second and Elizabeth Freivogel on viola. In the old days, such a close-knit ensemble was unheard of. To cite but one example, the members of the venerable Guarneri Quartet were famous for never socializing with each other. They thought such uncontrolled outside influences might hurt their playing.

There's no evidence that marital spats or sibling rivalry have harmed the Jupiter. On the contrary, all four members are fully engaged with each other, glancing back and forth across the stage and smiling or frowning as the music demands. Above all else, they look like they're having fun.

The evening, however, began on serious note. Before the opening work (Beethoven's last string quartet, Opus 135), cellist Daniel McDonough dedicated the performance to Kit Neustadter, the force of nature who founded the Occidental concerts in 1980 and ran them almost single-handedly until she succumbed to cancer earlier this year. The presence of the Jupiter on the Occidental series is but one indication of the consistently high quality of musicians Neustadter brought to her small venue for nearly three decades.

With Neustadter's memory hovering in the background, the quartet eased into the Beethoven with an absolutely beautiful entry by the viola. The other instruments followed in turn, blending into a warm, room-filling sound in which each voice could be distinctly heard. Their dynamics were well controlled, and their intonation was impeccable. The first movement was great, but the vivacious second was even better, sending shivers up the spine. The first violin played his treacherous high runs perfectly, conveying real excitement and urgency.

The elegant third movement found the players swaying back and forth, their vibratos perfectly matched, the spaces between the notes as expressive as the notes themselves. One wondered how such young players could capture the spirit of this movement, which seems to express Beethoven's own vision of his impending death. Such gloomy thoughts were cast aside in the spirited fourth, which opened with powerful chords that resonated at length in the cello. The second violinist smiled throughout, even during the most insistent passage, where she and the first hammer away at a single note. The pizzicato section right before the end was simply breathtaking.

After the tumultuous applause, I overheard a woman behind me telling her companion, "Those instruments were just talking to you." Indeed they were, in some of the best acoustics to be found in this small corner of the world.

Late Beethoven is a hard act to follow, but the Jupiter finessed that problem by bringing on guest artist Jose Franch-Ballester, a Spanish clarinetist of great charm and wit. He explained that the group had asked him to play a work for solo clarinet. In searching for possible repertory to complement the Beethoven quartet and the Mozart clarinet quintet to come, he stumbled upon the works of Bela Kovacs, a Hungarian clarinet teacher born in 1937 who composes homages to various composers as etudes for his students. Franch-Ballester played two of these homages, one to Bach and one to de Falla.

From the outset, Franch-Ballester displayed a pure, rich tone of great subtlety and variety. The first homage certainly sounded like Bach, with a stately introduction followed by a brilliant allegro. Franch-Ballester played all the runs perfectly, his fingers blazing across the clarinet's many keys. The climax arrived with a fugue, during which Franch-Ballester brought in several voices at different points in his register, sustaining the illusion that all were unfolding simultaneously, even though he could only play one note at a time.

In contrast to the proliferation of notes in the Bach, the de Falla homage focused on the clarinet's panoply of sounds. In Franch-Ballester's capable hands and lungs, these ranged from foot-stomping Flamenco strums to spontaneous "Olés!," with some lightning-fast clapping mixed in. The mixture really evoked the sounds and passions of the player's and composer's native Spain.

Just before the second half began, a large male personage changed seats and placed himself directly in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. This is one disadvantage of the Occidental church, where the unraked floor and the low stage make for some difficult sightlines. No matter: the sound was enough.

Like Beethoven's Opus 135, Mozart's clarinet quintet is a late work, K. 581 out of 626. Many consider it his greatest piece of chamber music, and I am inclined to agree. It has moments of ineffable sadness and unbounded delight, but the dominant mood is one of heavenly serenity. If ever a piece of music floated out of the clouds, this is it.

Unable without craning my neck to view the Jupiter and Franch-Ballester at work upon the stage, I simply closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported on a celestial carpet of sound. The journey began at once, with the group establishing a brisk tempo that carried throughout the first movement. Each instrument stood out in turn before falling back into a blissful unison. In the second movement, the strings created a shimmering background for the clarinet, which entered and exited the stage like a magician materializing out of thin air.

The third-movement minuet was a study in contrasts, its strong, emphatic sections set off dramatically against its melancholic stretches. The contrasts continued into the fourth movement, which features a series of variations on a lilting theme. All the variations were distinctive, but the real standouts were the plangent viola section and the truly virtuosic interplay between the first violin and clarinet near the end.

The standing ovation was immediate and unanimous. After two curtain calls, Franch-Ballester introduced the encore by describing the horrific political situation in Argentina during the Peron dynasty, when soldiers routinely knocked on doors and took family members away, often never to be seen again. It was to these legions of "disappeared" that Astor Piazzolla dedicated his haunting piece "Oblivion," which the group played to heartbreaking perfection. The final moment, when Franch-Ballester simply blew toneless air through his instrument, was unforgettable. All those lives lost in a rush of wind.